“Do you personally relate to Matthew Shephard? How did his death impact you?”

I furrowed my brow. I hadn’t expected that question. “I’d have to think about that a little bit.” I smiled up at the crowd for moment as they waited patiently. It was getting closer to 11 pm, and the crowd was awake, but we were all emotionally exhausted after the production of the Laramie Project that we had just witnessed.

The play had beautifully recreated the Matthew Shephard story. A group of actors had portrayed a few dozen people from Laramie, Wyoming in a rapid fire monologues, all based on interviews that took place after the horrible hate crime had taken place in 1998. Ranchers, friends of the victim, friends of the killers, drug addicts, bartenders, teachers, students, their only connection having been living in a small Wyoming town that had been  ravaged by a nosey and impossible media that flooded the town for a time, then left it abruptly when another story had come along.

I flashed my brain back to 1998, when I learned about Matthew’s murder. He was only months older than me, just shy of 22, and I was turning 20. I was a Mormon missionary at the time, barely out of high school, and steadily internally torturing myself for being gay, begging in prayers every night for an impossible cure. The first person I had baptized on my mission had been gay. And I knew other gay people. But the way I thought of them at the time, gay people, I thought of them as weak of character, like they had succumbed to temptation, like they hadn’t been strong enough to stop themselves from being gay. Not like me, I was strong enough to not be gay… but I hated myself at the time, because the temptations kept recurring, kept coming back.

The thoughts spread through me and I looked back up at the crowd, a sad smile on my face. I was there as a social worker with training in working with the LGBT community, and as someone who had spent time researching hate crimes in recent months. Earlier in the day, I had given a lengthy presentation to the students at Southern Utah University, and now I was here for a post-show discussion. This had been the toughest question so far.

“Well,” I started, eloquently, “I was basically the same age as Matthew Shephard. I was 20 at the time of his murder.” The time he was punched with fists, pistol-whipped with the butt of a gun, kicked and beat more after being tied to a fence, and then left to die overnight with his skull crushed. He’d been in a coma for days before finally dying. “I guess his death impacted me a lot, it impacted all of us a lot. I grew up gay and religious and in a small town too.”

My eyes moved over the crowd a bit and I breathed out slowly. “More than anything at the time, I remember how whenever anyone talked about Matt, they were finding ways to blame him for his own death. I remember people saying terrible things. If he hadn’t been gay, if he hadn’t flirted with those men, if he hadn’t gone out alone, if he hadn’t been at a bar, if he hadn’t been drinking, if he hadn’t been so flamboyant, if he hadn’t experimented with drugs, if he had been smarter and not gone off with those two men… if if if… then he wouldn’t have been killed. And no one was talking about the killers, no one was outraged in the same way I was outraged. I remember his death scared me. It was one more reason to not be out of the closet, because if I was out of the closet then I could get attacked and beat and killed like Matt had been. And in my brain, I figured that didn’t happen to people who weren’t gay. And in my brain, I guess I thought it was Matt’s fault too, at the time.

“And I didn’t realize that there had been hundreds of other men attacked and killed for being gay. I just knew about Matt. And I saw the protestors at his funeral, and I saw how his parents spoke up and chose not to pursue the death penalty for one of the killers, and I heard no words from the Church leaders that I looked to for guidance about it.

“And that was almost 20 years ago. And Matt didn’t live. I lived. If that had been me, all of the experiences I have had since then would be erased. I wouldn’t have served a mission, or gone to college, or had children. I lived, and Matt didn’t. And his family has had every day since then without Matt in their lives. His parents and his brother, his family and friends, they never got to see what he would become. So I guess Matt’s death affected me a lot.”

There was a pause before I decided I didn’t have anything else to say. The questions continued for a bit, and the evening ended, and there were hugs and handshakes and goodbyes. And then I was dropped back off at the hotel.

I looked out at the horizon in the dark over the nearby streets of Cedar City, Utah, and I felt temporary, as this would be one more moment that would soon be passed.




Shakespearean ghosts


My favorite part of any theater production is eavesdropping on the crowd at the end. Here are a few snippets of conversations I heard on my way out of Henry V last night.

Oh, well, that was pretty wonderful. Just about a half an hour too long!

So wait, why was that French girl not speaking English when all the other French characters were speaking English?

I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I was living for it all the way through.

It was good. Yeah, the sets were pretty. I didn’t really get the storyline, but that’s not that weird. It’s Shakespeare.

They needed air-conditioning! My back and rear are all sweaty! But I stayed awake!

Shakespeare! That was brilliant! Have you seen the other Henry plays? You have to see all of them. I have copies if you want to read them.

It was a perfectly beautiful evening after a hot day, a light summer breeze blowing; Cedar City had reached 100 degrees today earlier. I walked down the stairs from the large outdoor theater, where the play had been performed down in the center with the audience sitting on raised seating all around.  No one seemed to be in a hurry, which I noticed quickly; Americans always seem to be in a rush to leave places.

I walked through the Shakespearean statues, quotes on the walls. There were separate theaters here for the Shakespeare festival, and a nice center venue for refreshments and green shows, lounging in the grass in the hot sun for conversation. I walked around the perimeter of Southern Utah University, all long shadows at this time of night. And then I kept walking.

I felt a bit haunted by history, after a day of heavy, and somewhat emotional, research. The ghosts were there. Not actual ghosts, of course, but the presence of those who have come before and all the stories that must be told. Then I smiled as I realized that was perhaps the perfect mood to have seen Henry V in. Shakespeare would want me to feel haunted right now.

Based on actual historical events, Shakespeare wrote a series of less popular plays about the various Henrys in the history of Great Britain. This story had unfolded with a powerful undertone of conquest and righteousness and destiny in it, underlying the entire production like a steady and distant percussion. The set had been simple and beautiful, all dripping candle wax and flowing banners with sigils and shiny gold. The costumes had been elaborate, golden crowns and swords in scabbards and thigh-high boots. And the casting had been wonderful, the actors with booming voices and conviction behind their words and fully formed relationships there on stage.

As I walked, I thought of the pride and arrogance of rulers. Toward the end of Henry V, the king reads scrolls of the deceased in battle, accounting the numbers of soldiers and peasants quickly, then taking time to read the individual name of each fallen lord. Pride and ego on both sides led to war and bloodshed. The play was full of underlying intrigue; a soldier hung for robbing a church, three of the kings closest allies caught in an assassination plot, a wife bidding a husband farewell knowing that she would never see him again, the most innocent character being tragically killed just as the conflict subsided.

I found a particular vantage point and watched the stars in the night sky over the rolling hills. I felt the heaviness of it all for a moment. Talent and ambition, pressure and worry over what comes next, tragedy and lives cut short, streets walked by people day after day and generation after generation. And then I thought of this single production, nearly three hours of brilliant theater, that brought together the lives of actors and attendees, hundreds of people in one room all moving on now to their lives, night and then day, all of us writing our own stories.

And I grinned as I remembered Henry V in the play telling his men, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”